Shmuel L. Felzenberg wants to set the record straight about the job of an army chaplain. Out of roughly 1,200 chaplains who serve in the army worldwide, Chaplain Felzenberg is one out of nine Jewish chaplains currently serving in the United States. He is new to Ft. Lewis and new to the Northwest.
“Being an army chaplain does not look like Father Mulcahy on “MASH,” you know, the nice, fluffy guy who sits around in the tent,” said Felzenberg. Chaplaincy in the military provides you with many life circumstances that are always shifting, like deployment. There are pressures and long hours. Being a chaplain is based on patriotism and being there to serve and make myself accessible to all of the soldiers.”
As a graduate of the Jewish Educational Center Yeshiva in Elizabeth, N.J., and the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J., Felzenberg also attended Tomchei Tamimim Yeshiva in K’far Chabad, Israel, and was ordained in 1990. He then served as an assistant rabbi and an affiliate for a Kashrut Rabbinical Council. After spending some time in business and sales, he became the kosher manager for Shop Rite, a large East coast food store chain. He joined the army in May, 1999, and arrived at Ft. Lewis in June of 1999.
According to Felzenberg, Jews make up about one-third of a percent of the population in the military. During Chanukah 1999, about 60 people attended services at the Ft. Lewis chapel and each Shabbat there can be up to 10 people attending services.
“Ft. Lewis is blessed with a chapel that was built as a Jewish chapel,” said Felzenberg. “The kosher level in the kitchen is at the highest level and we have a partial mechitzah (a partition separating men and women). I run the chapel, (weekly) services, holidays and classes. As a rabbi, when I counsel people I can refer to talmudic or midrashic stories for the soldiers, but 99 percent of the people I work with on a day-to-day basis are not Jewish. In the army you’re working with a wide cross section of people and many of them have their own faith group. We learn pluralism in the chaplain’s basic officer course. When you leave the chaplain’s training, you know the basic tenets of other faiths.”
In addition to serving the faithful and the faithless, life in the military as a chaplain, according to Felzenberg, includes the regimen and discipline that would be expected from any other enlisted person. Unlike the civilian and rabbinical world, your shoes must shine and your physical health must be strong.
“The army is very strict on chaplains,” said Felzenberg. “We’re the absolute point people in that regard. Everything has to be precise, your uniform has to be the best. We’re out there with the soldiers in the field. You have to be as ‘squared away’ as the best of them. There are pressures and long hours. Every day you have an hour of physical training and every six months you have a physical training test.”
Admittedly, it doesn’t hurt to be in good shape, said Felzenberg, because the job can be demanding around the clock. He and his wife, Dini, who live on the base with their five children, two boys and three girls, make themselves available to the soldiers any time of the day or night. Dini, who home-schools their five children, is also actively involved in running Family Support Groups, a program organized for soldiers on base, along with many of the other chaplains’ wives.
“Soldiers are also husbands, wives, fathers and mothers,” said Felzenberg. “When their spouses are gone, the Family Support Groups provide movies and babysitting and more. My job is to provide religious support, counseling, ethical and moral guidance and (bolster) morale. I deal with grief, crisis, personal problems, depression and economic problems. I also provide referrals in the community for soldiers who need more help. The best thing a chaplain can offer is confidentiality. A regular employer in a nine-to-five job doesn’t usually attend to an employee’s personal problems, but the army has its own built in stress (reducing) system.”
Felzenberg also provides Jewish support for active and retired military family members, Department of Defense civilians, and those at McChord Air Force Base, Madigan Army Hospital and the Military Correctional Facility.
Even with so many responsibilities, commitments and adjustments in lifestyle, Felzenberg has developed a high regard for the military and seems genuinely happy with his new position.
“Outside of personal choices, this is, by far, the best professional move I’ve made,” said Felzenberg. “The military stresses values. They try, very well, to take care of their own. I feel that the army needs ample funding (to act) as a deterrent and that to be in the army is the most noble sacrifice. We could not have hoped for better.”